In front of a partisan home crowd in Skopje, Liverpool eased to a comfortable win in their Europa League third qualifying round first leg match, courtesy of a double strike from David N’Gog.
The result will have come as some relief to new Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson in his first competitive game, after heeding the advice of his medical team not to play many of his World Cup stars. Consequently, he took a largely inexperienced and under-prepared squad to Macedonia for this potential ‘banana skin’ of a tie.
A Liverpool loss would have immediately put Hodgson on the back-foot at the outset of his Anfield tenure. Look at what happened to Gordon Strachan in his first competitive match at Celtic around a similar time in 2005 – a 5-0 hammering by Artmedia Bratislava in a Champions League qualifier. But in truth, an upset was never on the cards last night.
As expected, Liverpool went in with the 4-4-1-1 formation that had been employed in their friendly defeat to Kaiserslautern at the weekend, with Alberto Aquilani playing off Ngog. The hosts made a relatively bright start going forward, but without creating any significant chances. However, their defense looked immediately shaky – Sotirios Krygiakos ghosting in, unchallenged at a corner, only to flick his header wide. Soon after, any nerves that the Reds may have had at the beginning were extinguished.
Lucas lofted a free-kick on halfway over the top for N’Gog to chase. Cue utter confusion in the Rabotnicki back-line. Amidst the miscommunication between defender Egzon Belica and goalkeeper Martin Bogatinov, the Frenchman managed to get a toe to the ball and put it into the unguarded goal.
From that moment on, Liverpool relaxed against rather sub-standard opposition. Captain for the night Lucas and Jay Spearing were able to control the midfield without too much hassle – both working hard to win the ball back whilst keeping their distribution nice and simple. Rabotnicki were hemmed in their own half.
There was no reliable out-ball for them either, reliant on an isolated Fabio Silva up-front to hold the ball up and wait for midfield support to arrive. Central defenders Krygiakos and Martin Skrtel, part of a more familiar Liverpool back-line, were able to handle this 2 v 1 situation without too much trouble.
Following the half-time interval, the away side continued to dominate the match. There were flashes of promise down the right wing from the pacy teenager David Amoo although his crossing was often erratic. But it was down this channel that the Reds secured their win and surely passage into the next round of the Europa League. Martin Kelly impressively surged forward from his right-back position, putting an accurate cross into the box which has adroitly swept home by N’Gog on the volley.
A classy finish from someone who only cost around £1.5 million from Paris Saint Germain a couple of summers previous. From then on, Liverpool were able to run the clock down without any real threat to Diego Cavalieri’s goal. Many of the home supporters streamed out of the ground with still 15 minutes left with the result now inevitable.